USA Today ambushes Seresto again with dubious story, failing to seek comment

Last night, following a joint public webinar and listening session hosted by the EPA and FDA on Tuesday – a hearing prompted in part by criticism of how Seresto flea and tick collars are currently regulated –  USA Today, whose parent company is America’s largest newspaper chain, Gannett, published the latest in what has now been more than two years of breathless, dubious reporting alleging that the collars are dangerous.

And this time they did not even go through the motions of seeking comment from Seresto’s manufacturer, Elanco.

Neither USA Today managing editor Emily LeCoz, nor Gannett standards editor Michael McCarter, nor Jonathan Hettinger, the reporter, responded to our detailed requests for comment. (See our written request below).

The Canine Review has been covering the unfolding Seresto saga since the morning of March 3, 2021 when Mr. Hettinger’s original ambush on the over-the-counter collars landed like a bomb in an already chaotic, understaffed, overworked, underpaid, overstressed, undervalued, and persistently cyberbullied veterinary profession. (Disclosure: I use the collar for my own dog, a healthy, high-energy eight-year-old Labrador.)

Activist “Investigative” Reporter

Mr. Hettinger doesn’t work for USA Today. He works for an “investigative” non-profit reporting group called Investigate Midwest, that clearly has an activist agenda. The About section of its website says its mission is to help “citizens to better understand agribusiness and its impact locally, regionally and globally.” Beset with the continuing decline of the business of parent company Gannett, USA Today has farmed out some of its reporting to groups like Hettinger’s. The results are not pretty.

Hettinger ’s story had so many problems and oversights that one hardly knew where to start. But the most glaring omission was the absence of the voices of veterinarians from any of his reporting, particularly the original story. And the veterinarians consulted since the first Hettinger attack on Seresto – board-certified veterinary toxicologists – on the front line of animal care – continue to be mystified by his attacks on the dog collar.

The Environmental Protection Agency and FDA may, indeed, have reasons to make changes to oversight responsibilities, which was the subject of a public listening session and hearing on Tuesday. The FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) and Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP) the latter of which regulates pesticides said in a press release in February that the two agencies intended to seek public comment how certain products should be regulated and by whom. The listening session came on the heels of a deluge of criticism landing on the EPA’s head as a result of Hettinger’s reporting, in which he alleges that the Seresto collars injured and killed as many animals as they did because of the EPA’s failure to regulate them.

Thus, although the EPA and FDA may be due for an update in how the agencies provide oversight for certain products, Mr. Hettinger’s reporting only prompted this because he reported, falsely, that the collars are responsible for 100,000 illnesses, injuries and deaths of animals, an insinuation no board-certified veterinarian will substantiate.


Erase Errors, But Don’t Tell Your Readers

Last night, after Elanco issued a letter to Gannett with a laundry list of requests for corrections and changes to the latest ambush, managing editor Emily LeCoz responded to Elanco’s spokesperson by informing her that the story had been updated to reflect a “previous” story’s comment:

Hi Colleen,

Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We have updated the story on our end with the same line that was included in the previous story:

Elanco maintains the collar is safe based on internal studies. A company-funded analysis found that the two chemicals in Seresto – imidacloprid and flumethrin – have not been responsible for any pet deaths.

We also added a note to the top of the story alerting readers about the update.

Our understanding is that the Investigate Midwest is doing the same on its end.

Please reach out if you need anything else.

“It is far more than just that the company maintains the safety of the collars,” Elanco wrote in a follow up to Gannett. “There are many experts who do as well.”

That is accurate, to say the least.

The Canine Review, in fact, has been unable to find any veterinarian who knows of a veterinarian actually adjudicating any single causal relationship between a serious adverse event and the collars. Every veterinary toxicologist we have interviewed in our two and half years covering this story has vouched for the safety of the collars.

USA Today/Gannett Ethics Violations Run Wild

Gannett’s conduct in publishing and then backing its outsourced “investigative” report has been more troubling:

After USA Today reported, falsely, that Elanco had covered up adverse event reports and withheld them from regulators, rather than issue a correction, Mr. Hettinger and USA Today simply deleted the story’s most significant paragraph. In fact, there was even a “Why This Story Matters” graphic, also removed.

It was an egregious enough violation of the company’s own corrections policy to warrant an FYI to Newsguard, a fact-checking company. Fortunately for Gannett, this reporter’s father is Newsguard’s co-CEO- -and because of that, Newsguard determined that the risk for perception of conflict outweighed the need for them to downgrade Gannett’s rating, at least for now. However, TCR’s reporting shows what now amounts to more than two years of egregious violations of the most basic journalism standards. Note: This is a great newstip for a media reporter.


The “Pink Slime” Effect

Indiana-based Elanco, which acquired Bayer’s animal health division in 2020, including the blockbuster flea and tick collars Seresto, is an attractive target for an Internet ambush.  The second largest animal health company on the planet, Elanco is a big name with big money. And Seresto is an even bigger name. Big names equal clicks.

In the news business, there’s also a romanticized notion of stories that villainize big companies with huge brand names. This can sometimes make reporters  more eager, more breathless – – and less careful. In 2017, ABC News paid $177 million to settle a defamation case in which the evidence was clear that the network had presented a distorted, one-sided report that a South Dakota beef company’s product was actually an adulterated product that ABC’s on-air reporters called “Pink Slime.” Sales plummeted and the company was forced to lay off more than 700 workers.


Top Veterinary Toxicologist Reaffirms Seresto Collars Are Safe Enough To Eat

In an interview with Dr. Ahna Brutlag, who is a board-certified veterinary toxicologist and oversees the Pet Poison helpline, which is one of two large organizations pet owners call when they have a pet emergency involving poison, Dr. Brutlag reaffirmed the position of her organization, which is that they stood behind the safety profile of the collars. Dr. Brutlag added that in the time since, she and her colleagues analyzed the 400 cases they had on book through present, she has not been made aware of any cases of serious illness or deaths replated to the collars .


Death Rattle: America’s Largest Newspaper Chain

USA Today parent company Gannett is America’s largest newspaper chain—and one its most troubled. The company is hemorrhaging reporters. In addition to the 200 editorial staffers laid off in December 2022,  400 were laid off in August, and 400 open positions were removed, according to  the Poynter Institute, which studies the media industry.

“There was another round of cuts in October, including buyouts, a hiring freeze and the suspension of company contributions to employee 401(k) accounts. In addition, employees also will be required to take a week of unpaid leave over the holidays,” Poynter said.

And who is taking the place of those fired reporters?

Enter, Mr. Hettinger, the outsourced “investigative” reporter.


Quotation Mark

He stopped calling us for comment.”

“He stopped calling us for comment,” Elanco spokesperson Colleen Dekker told The Canine Review in a telephone interview late Wednesday afternoon, referring to Hettinger.

The fantastical narrative that Mr. Hettinger’s stories have created – that tens of thousands of dogs have been sickened or worse by Seresto flea and tick collars – is contradicted by every veterinarian this organization has interviewed.

In fact, they are safe enough to eat, one of America’s preeminent veterinary toxicologists Ahna Brutlag reaffirmed yesterday in an interview with TCR.

In an earlier interview, Dr. Brutlag explained that whenever there is any concern about product safety, a critical piece of information is the denominator, by which she meant the total number of uses or cases into which the adverse case number is factored. More than 25 million Seresto collars have been purchased in the United States, for example, which makes 25 million the denominator. This conversation was in 2021!

By the way, Ms. Dekker says that number is now at 33 million collars sold–and over 80 million worldwide.

Referring to the USA Today’s report that the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates pesticides, had logged thousands of purported adverse events associated with Seresto, she explained that, “Seresto collars are very popular in the U.S. and probably globally….The fact that there are however many hundred reports of adverse events, none in which causality is established or even indicated — the EPA  numbers are purely the number of reports — is not sufficient for the claims the story makes.”

“What you really want to know is, how many of these deaths or products or problems are caused by the collars,” Dr. Brutlag explained, “and what’s the medical context there, because that’s really the nuts and bolts of the [story].” Asked if she thought the reporter established any meaningful causality between incident reports from an EPA database and animal deaths, Dr. Brutlag said “No” adding that the reporting was “lacking.”


TCR’s Email Seeking Comment

To: Emily LeCoz, Michael McCarter, Jonathan Hettinger

From: Emily Brill

Dear All,

Good evening and hope this finds you well. I’m writing a story about the developments regarding oversight of flea and tick collars. I read Mr. Hettinger’s story today with great interest and was hoping you could all clarify why there was no request for comment from Elanco.

Or was there a request for comment?

Elanco says they were not contacted. Is that true? Elanco also says they were not contacted for the previous story — in fact, that Mr. Hettinger has not contacted them for comment once this calendar year.

Beyond that, no veterinary toxicology expert at either poison helpline (the best data sources on this matter) was referenced in Mr. Hettinger’s reporting or contacted for comment in the 2023 calendar year, according to representatives at both entities. Is that accurate? And why would Mr. Hettinger omit this information from his reporting?

Mr. McCarter, in your capacity as the Standards Editor, could you explain why there was no request for comment? Your policies offer a full section on fairness attached below with respect to seeking comment.  Do you have different published policies and standards for USA Today and if so, can you please send those policies to us? Are reporters at USA Today no longer expected to seek comment? It does appear that USA Today’s policies do not specifically reference seeking comment.

Ms. LeCoz,  does USA Today have a different set of policies and standards that might help TCR’s readers understand why Mr. Hettinger did not seek comment from Elanco in today’s story?

Does Gannett intend to respond to Elanco’s letter? Does Gannett have any comment to TCR regarding Elanco’s letter?

I have also just noticed that you have updated the new story to paraphrasing an Elanco comment to your reporter from two years ago.  Does that meet your standard for seeking comment for a new story?

Finally, do you have different standards for transparency and accountability when you partner with another reporting organization and give a byline in your publications to its reporter?

Mr. McCarter, can you walk me through how you implemented your standards with regard to this report – one that clearly seems to have the same apparent gaps as the prior reports on the same subject by the same reporter?

For your convenience, I am attaching the Gannett standards that I am referencing below.

Thank you for your cooperation.

As a courtesy, I should tell you that I intend to publish this letter with your responses.



Emily Brill


Being fair

Because of timeliness or unavailability, it is not always possible to include a response from the subject of an accusation in a news story. Nevertheless:

  • We should make a good-faith effort to seek appropriate comment from the person (or organization) before publication.
  • When that is not feasible, we should be receptive to requests for a response or try to seek a response for a follow-up story.
  • Letters to the editor also may provide an appropriate means for reply.


  • We will strive to include all sides relevant to a story. When news develops and we can’t include important perspectives immediately, we will share updates, including additional sources, when possible. We also will share attempts to reach sources who add value to the story.
  • We will explain to audiences our journalistic processes to promote transparency and engagement.

  • We will strive to include all sides relevant to a story. When news develops and we can’t include important perspectives immediately, we will share updates, including additional sources, when possible. We also will share attempts to reach sources who add value to the story.
  • We will explain to audiences our journalistic processes to promote transparency and engagement.




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